It was the egret, flying out of the lemon-grove that started it.This single sentence, the opening line from The Moonspinners, sums up what Mary Stewart means to me. The to-die-for sense of place expressed in just a few skilful words. The delicious hint of adventure and romance. The promise of a glorious few hours, curled up with one of my favourite authors, oblivious to the outside world. I read Mary Stewart's books over and over again, and every time, I'm transported to that precious state where nothing else matters except what I am reading.
Mary Stewart wrote romantic suspense before the genre had a name. To me as a teenager her books were adventure mixed with love and sprinkled with humour and I didn't see how the combination could possibly be bettered. (This also held true for Georgette Heyer whom I discovered at roughly the same time.) Even now, I have only to think of any Mary Stewart book and I am there. The novels come as a whole package: sights, sounds, smells. To add to the immediacy, all but one are written in the first person, so when I experience the narrative, I do so from within the heroine's skin.
My first Mary Stewart novel was Airs Above the Ground. I read it at age 12 or 13 and was hooked by her style and her voice. My all-time favourite is Touch Not the Cat, an unashamed love story with a paranormal thread. But it is her Hellenic books - This Rough Magic (1964), The Moonspinners (1962) and My Brother Michael (1959) - that captured my heart all those years ago and caused me to fall in love both with her and with Greece.
The majority of Mary Stewart's romantic suspense novels can be loosely described as the story of a young woman stumbling on adventure and finding romance along the way. The landscape, whether at home or abroad, is always part of the story. I love the way she arranges darkness and humour, description and dialogue, passion and the commonplace, into a perfect whole. Light reading these books may be, but she isn't afraid of strong emotion: Nine Coaches Waiting, for example, contains some heartbreaking moments of self-sacrifice.
It is My Brother Michael that moved me the most, however. Pure chance causes Camilla Haven to deliver a hire car to Simon Lester, who is in Delphi to discover the truth about his brother Michael's death towards the end of World War II. Mary Stewart described the book as her love affair with Greece. Her affection and respect for the country and its people shines through and imprints itself indelibly on the consciousness. That was the first point. The second was that My Brother Michael introduced me to John Donne. What a thing to do to an impressionable teenager besotted with words and their rhythms! In particular Mary Stewart quotes Donne's 'No man is an island' passage and uses it to describe the hero. And he is the final reason that I fell in love with this book. Simon Lester. He is tough, fanciable, understated - and cares deeply. He is 'involved in mankind' as a matter of course. The sort of man a girl yearns to know is out there. The sort who spoils her for all others. Aragorn for the modern world.
Whether I would feel the same way now on finding Mary Stewart for the first time I don't know. I always think we are shaped by our reading, so I am the person I am because of discovering her in my teens. The fact remains that for me she has that rare gift - page-turning quality by the bagful. The best thing about being so familiar with her books is that now I can take my time enjoying each page without the what-happens-next need to rush on.
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The blog post above was one I contributed to Norman Geras's wonderfully wide ranging NORMBLOG. Many thanks to Adele Geras for agreeing to my republishing it here.
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I was incredibly sad to learn this week of Mary Stewart's death. As this post shows, I owe her a great deal, which is one reason that I dedicated FAIRLIGHTS to her. The other reason, of course, is simply that her writing is quite, quite awesome.